NEW YORK – Tin Tin Wei worked 11 hours a day, six days a week in a factory in Myanmar sewing jackets. But she hasn’t sewed a single piece of clothing since a coup in February.
Instead, the 26-year-old union organizer protested on the street – and tried to put international pressure on the newly installed junta.
Your union, the Myanmar Textile Workers’ Federation and others have held general strikes to protest the coup and are calling on major international brands such as H&M and Mango, which source some of their products in Myanmar, to denounce the takeover and put more pressure on them exercise factories to protect workers from dismissal or harassment – or worse, arrested and killed for participating in the protests.
“If we go back to work and work for the system, our future is in the dark and we will lose our labor rights and even our human rights,” said Tin Tin Wei, who has worked in a clothing factory since he was 13.
The reactions from companies have so far been mixed. Few have announced plans to curtail their business in Myanmar. Most of the others have made statements of stop taking action, saying that while denouncing the coup they want to support the workers by providing them with jobs.
The Tin Tin Wei union and the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar also called for sweeping international sanctions – not the targeted sanctions some have imposed – to overthrow the junta that overthrew the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
When international sanctions were dropped in the mid-2010s, when Myanmar began moving towards democracy and setting some labor standards after decades of military rule, Western brands looking to diversify their sourcing were drawn to the country’s cheap labor force. Widespread sanctions would now cripple the burgeoning apparel industry, which has grown rapidly in recent years before the coronavirus pandemic cut orders and eliminated jobs.
Widespread sanctions could ruin the livelihoods of more than 600,000 textile workers, but some union leaders say they would rather see massive layoffs than endure military repression.
“I have to make short-term and long-term sacrifices for our next generation,” said Tin Tin Wei, who is the only breadwinner in her family and has received food donations.
The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) included railroad workers, truck drivers, hospitals, bank employees and many others determined to suppress the economy.
The goal is “no participation in the junta at all,” said Sein Htay, an organizer of migrant workers who returned to Myanmar from Thailand, in a comment sent via email. “We believe CDM really works. So we are motivated to keep going. “
But violent raids by security forces in Myanmar against protesters, including textile workers, are escalating. Troops shot at least 38 people on Sunday in an industrial suburb of Yangon – an area dominated by clothing factories – after Chinese-owned factories were set on fire. In the days that followed, tens of thousands of workers and their families fled the region.
The apparel industry plays a key role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly in the export sector. About a third of Myanmar’s total merchandising exports came from textiles and apparel, valued at $ 4.59 billion in 2018. This is an increase of 9 percent, or $ 900 million in 2012, when the international sanctions imposed the latest data from the European Chamber of Commerce of Myanmar has been dropped Myanmar.
Myanmar’s clothing exports go mainly to the European Union, Japan and South Korea due to favorable trade deals. According to Sheng Lu, an expert in clothing retailing, the United States accounts for 5.5 percent of Myanmar’s exports, with clothes, shoes, and luggage accounting for the majority.
However, Myanmar still makes up a tiny fraction – less than 0.1 percent – of the total procurement networks of fashion companies in the US and the European Union. And there are plenty of other alternatives for brands.
Even so, many adopt a wait and see attitude when it comes to long-term decisions. Experts note that it is not easy to move products to another country, and neither is it easy to return to Myanmar after companies have left. In addition, some Western companies argue that they play a role in reducing poverty by giving workers in Myanmar an opportunity to earn an income while helping to improve labor standards there.
Working conditions in factories were already poor before the February coup, but unions had made some progress and given workers hope. And while the National League for Democracy, the party ousted in the takeover, didn’t proactively protect, persecute, or crack down on the unions, says Andrew Tillett-Saks, a labor organizer in Southeast Asia who previously headed it in Myanmar.
Asian brands have so far remained calm about the turmoil. The American Apparel & Footwear Association, along with other groups such as the Fair Labor Association, condemned the coup and urged members to honor existing financial contracts with factories there.
Steve Smith, CEO of L. L. Bean, said he was saddened by the situation in Myanmar, which he visited in 2019. Bean uses multiple factories and suppliers for three product lines.
Smith said there is backup production elsewhere, but it’s important not to leave the country.
Other companies reacted more forcefully. For example, Hennes & Mauritz and The Benetton Group have suspended all new orders from factories in Myanmar.
“Although we are not taking immediate action regarding our long-term presence in the country, at this point we have stopped placing orders with our suppliers,” H&M said in a statement. “This is due to our concern for people’s safety and an unpredictable situation that is limiting our ability to operate in the country.”
Spanish brand Mango said it will work with its trade and union partners around the world and locally in Myanmar to ensure there is no retaliation against factory workers or union leaders who are exercising their civil or union rights.
Moe Sandar Myint, chairman of Myanmar’s Federation of Textile Workers, which organized small strikes on factory floors that later took to the streets, said brands are not doing enough to help workers. She wants to see “concrete measures”.
Nearly 70 percent of Myanmar’s clothing factories are owned by foreigners, and a good portion of them are Chinese-owned, according to the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar. International brands that use the factories do not hire workers directly, often depending on a network of contractors and subcontractors to produce goods for them.
But companies “have a huge impact on the industry,” said Tillett-Saks. “You have all the power over the supplier.”
Tin Tin Wei says escalating military intimidation has frightened some workers in her factory. The company is located in the Hlaing Thayar industrial area and unionized five years ago. Out of 900 workers employed in the factory, 700 initially took part in the protests, but that number fell to 500 in early March, she said.
Moe Sandar Myint, who is hiding and moving from one safe house to another after police raided her home in early February, said she would continue fighting.
“I cannot allow my generation and my next generation to experience a different military leadership,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”